[Marxism] Questioning the "Civil War as American Tragedy"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Aug 16 13:22:07 MDT 2011

Anyone who's going to deal in Civil War studies really needs to 
take a moment to grapple with James McPherson's This Mighty 
Scourge. I doubt that this was McPherson's intent, but the first 
essay in the book is really what set me on the path of questioning 
the "Civil War as American Tragedy" narrative on to the "Civil War 
as American Revolution" line of thinking.

I suspect McPherson might not agree with my reframing--I'm 
probably being a bit too pat. Nevertheless, his essay demonstrates 
that the idea of the Civil War as avoidable tragedy didn't 
materialize out of thin air; it comes not just out of American 
popular memory, but right out of American historiography.

The origins of the American Tragedy are rooted in the Civil War 
denialism of historians who held that the war wasn't about slavery 
but, in the words of Charles Beard, "a sectional struggle" between 
two powers divided by "accidents of climate, soil and geography." 
Attendant to that view was the Fitzhughesque notion that "wage 
slavery" was as bad as "chattel slavery." When you reduce the 
Civil War to a fight between two equivalent systems of labor, it 
becomes much easier to believe that 600,000 Americans died in vain.


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